The Ave Maria Grotto is a four-acre park featuring 125 miniature reproductions of some of the most important Christian buildings and shrines, located in Cullman, Alabama.
Known as “Jerusalem in Miniature” this wonderful attraction was built from concrete, stone and seashells, by Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk of the nearby St. Bernard Abbey. Joseph was born in Germany, in 1878 and nearly lost his life to a flu epidemic that swept around Europe. He emigrated to the USA as a teenager, and settled in Alabama, where a freak accident left him scoliosis and a back injury. That’s probably the reason he decided to join the newly opened Benedictine monastery of Cullman. He took his vows at the age of nineteen and was put in charge of the monastery’s powerhouse.
It was around this time Brother Joseph began tinkering with stones, leftover cement and other junk he found outside the powerhouse. He would build Bible scenes from old ink bottles and rusted birdcages, and his handiwork soon attracted the attention of Father Dominic, who asked him to make two miniature grottoes for him to sell and raise money for the abbey. The artworks were so impressive they sold immediately, so what Joe though was just a one time deal turned into a regular business, and he ended up creating over 5,000 grottoes.
In his spare time, the talented Brother Joseph Zoettl, worked on his own collection of miniature holy places, and before long people started visiting Saint Bernard Abbey to see his Little Jerusalem. It had become quite a nuisance for the monks, so in 1932, Joe was allowed to build a large grotto on the site of an old quarry and move all his creations there. The main grotto, which shelters commissioned marble statues of the Virgin Mary and two saints gave this unique roadside attraction its name. Joe was 54 when he began working on the Ave Maria Grotto miniature park and he spent the next 30 years building 125 replicas that spread over an entire hillside that conveniently hide the backside of his small artworks.
You see, as a devoted Benedictine monk, Brother Joseph didn’t have time to travel around the world to actually visit the sites he recreated, so he only had photographs and postcards as reference. Using one-sided and distorted images meant the builder couldn’t get the actual scale right, and that he had to imagine what the back and sides of the edifices really look like. Because he had nothing to compare them to in terms of scale, some of the miniatures in Ave Maria Grotto have towers and buttresses that are too large or small, but this just adds to the charm of the place.
Brother Joseph continued to work on the Ave Maria Grotto until he was 80 years old, when he built his last model, the Basilica in Lourdes. He died three years later, in 1961, and was buried in special bronze coffin, on the Abbey grounds. His life-work is now looked-after by Leo Schwaiger, a local handyman who worked alongside Joseph Zoettl in his later years, and now spends at least two days a week painting and restoring the wonderful miniatures. Among the 125 detailed miniatures, you can see replicas of Noah’s Ark, the Babel Tower, the leaning Tower of Pisa and many other holy places from around the world.
Ave Maria Grotto is one of those incredible places that you simply have to see first hand to appreciate its uniqueness, because words and photos simply don’t do it justice. So whether you’re into art, religion, miniatures or if you just want to see something really cool, head over to the Ave Maria Grotto, in Cullman, Alabama, you won’t regret it.